Scroll through Lisa A. Olivera’s Instagram grid and you’ll find a distinctly 2019 tableau: a desert palette of blush, mauve and slate backgrounds with cream sans serif text. Her logo, a line drawing of a hand grasping desert poppies and wild grass, appears on many of the squares.
These colors and icons are trademarks of influence in the age of peak wellness, the trappings of nonexperts who assert that drinking warm lemon water, de-puffing your face with a jade roller and bathing in rose petals will make you a better person.
Ms. Olivera, however, is no influencer, at least not the kind who shares a shoppable #ootd or peddles beauty products. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a practice in Berkeley, Calif., and one of the dozens such counselors using social media to reach those who may not be able to afford mental health services.
Despite appeals from the so-called therapy generation, a lot of mental health care remains prohibitively expensive and moderately stigmatized in the United States. Of the nearly 1 in 5 adults in this country who experience mental illness, just over 42 percent received mental health services in 2017. Mental health professionals are seeking to address this issue, in part by doling out advice online.
Instagram therapists are the new Instagram poets, in a way — only instead of posting free verse in typewriter font, they deal in pithy pronouncements about embracing imperfection, self-care, “growth mindset,” mothering oneself, impostor syndrome and trauma. The digital words of accounts like @thefatsextherapist, @nedratawwab and @the.holistic.psychologist are meant to encapsulate the “aha” moment of a therapy session. The best part? There’s no bill afterward.
Ms. Olivera, 33, started her account, @lisaoliveratherapy, in November 2017 while transitioning to private-practice work from community mental health. She thought Instagram could be a good way for new clients to find her. In the last two years, she has gained 161,000 followers — more than double that of Bill de Blasio, the New York City mayor and Democratic presidential candidate.
Ms. Olivera was something of a pioneer. “I started it on a whim, not sure what it would look like or where it would go. There weren’t many therapists on Instagram at that time,” she said. “It was inspiring to see how many people were wanting to learn more about emotional health and look internally and do the work inside themselves, even if they weren’t able to access therapy.”
Allyson Dinneen, 54, is a marriage and family therapist in Great Barrington, Mass. Online, she is @notesfromyourtherapist, posting handwritten advice on scraps of paper for 130,000 followers. Like Ms. Olivera, Ms. Dinneen opened her account in late 2017 while starting her private practice. She wanted a way to have an impact on more than one person at a time.
“The internet is filled with directives: ‘Do this, do that, stop doing this, do that.’ That’s hard for people to take in,” she said. “I’m coming from my own experience, and people feel more open to taking in what they need.”
Both therapists say that these accounts should not be used in place of therapy, but that they can help people heal themselves.
“While Instagram isn’t therapy, much of the work we talk about and teach in therapy has to happen outside of the session to be meaningful,” Ms. Olivera said. “One therapy session per week is a very small portion of our overall time — the rest of the time is up to us.”
David Marques, a 36-year-old web and design consultant, saw a therapist every other week for a year, then began booking appointments on an as-needed basis. He said Ms. Olivera’s posts on Instagram helped him through moments that were tough, but not tough enough to merit a face-to-face consultation.
“Things Lisa Olivera would post about are things I know my therapist would be recommending to me,” he said. “If I find myself stressed, take time to breathe. If I find myself getting overwhelmed with kids and family, create some boundaries.”
Both therapists spend most of their time seeing clients, but spend about 10 to 15 hours per week creating content, responding to comments and reading messages on their accounts. Both say it’s important for them to “hold boundaries” around the amount of time they spend on Instagram.
Therapists aren’t the only medical professionals on Instagram who benefit from the demand for straightforward, insider knowledge backed by a degree: Nurses, doctors, dentists and even optometrists are seeing big followings on Instagram, and their advertisements for oatmeal, scrubs and watches have raised ethical questions.
Lynn Bufka, the associate executive director for practice, research and policy at the American Psychological Association, is working on the organization’s first formal social media guidelines.
She said therapists in online spaces need to be particularly careful about soliciting patients and advertising products, and make sure they’re not treating someone outside the state where they’re licensed.
“It’s understood that somebody who is being treated for a mental health condition is feeling more mentally vulnerable,” Dr. Bufka said. “You want to be particularly careful in the kinds of communication you have, so they’re not inadvertently taking advantage of or misleading people.”
Neither Ms. Olivera nor Ms. Dinneen gives followers individual advice, because the platform is not confidential. If followers message them asking for specific advice, they reply with a resource like a book or another Instagram account.
Ms. Olivera has gained clients from her account. In January, Ms. Dinneen self-published a book. Her Instagram page includes a link to her Patreon account, where followers can support her work. She said she doesn’t want to add to her private practice, and instead would like to focus on her writing career. Ms. Olivera recently signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster.
“It’s really important work, even though it’s Instagram,” Mr. Marques said. “It’s reaching people where they’re at: on social media.”